I’m organizing a webinar this month for the West Virginia Rural Health Association, part of my work with the organization using digital spaces and creative engagement strategies to expand its audience and membership.
Between January and June of this year I planned and hosted four engaged journalism projects in communities across Appalachia, designed to reimagine the relationship between local newsrooms and the communities they cover.
Working with community members in Ensley, Alabama, I built the Ensley Asks project to provide a platform for community members to engage with the local media about issues impacting their neighborhood.
In order to engage kids in a space where they were comfortable, I used a system called GroundSource to poll, via text message, 1,100 students from more than 20 schools on how they feel about the pressing political and social issues of today.
As the new Community Engagement Editor for 100 Days in Appalachia, I've been tasked with creating a series of experiments in "engaged journalism" across the region - creative and often surprising things that journalists and newsrooms can do to involve local people in reporting about their community.
Order Of Business #1 has been to find out everything I can about what weird and excellent things brave folks were already doing in the field of engaged journalism. I'm a big believer in imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and in kidnapping good ideas whenever and wherever I can find them.
And so over the past month I've spoken with dozens of reporters, editors and freelance producers working on the cutting edge of engaged journalism. I've learned a lot about what effective audience engagement looks like in the real world, and how working newsrooms make it a part of their everyday practice.
So, while our 100 Days in Appalachia projects are still in the design phase, here's a list of 6 things that any newsroom can do tomorrow to step into the weird and wonderful (but not really very weird) world of engaged journalism.
1. Make it easy for people to contact you.
As a communications director in the nonprofit world I spent a lot of time trying to find email addresses and phone numbers of reporters at specific papers. A chronic fear of the dreaded spam led many web managers to hide or bury reporter's direct email addresses, thus minimizing opportunities for people to contact those reporters (which seems to be the opposite of what journalism - particularly local reporting - is about).
So make sure your Contact Us button is front and center and plainly visible, and that it goes directly to the names, phone numbers and email addresses (and headshots, if you have them) for your reporters and editors.
Better yet, make a feature of it. Showing people that you are an organization of real human beings, with names and faces, that are interested in hearing from citizens in their community is a simple little PR improvement that most newsrooms would benefit from.
2. Ask your community something.
Most news websites love to scream at their readers "THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY!" but have no interest in getting off their bullhorn for a moment to ask "WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY?"
I call that an emotionally abusive relationship. No wonder people have started tuning out.
So, something you can do tomorrow: Set aside a visible part of your website, or print edition, to ask the community what they think about a certain issue. Doesn't matter too much what it is, really. Just ask them something. Ask them what they want to ask you.
Give them a name, phone number, email address or twitter handle to contact, or a web contact form that you'll really check and respond to. (Take 2 minutes to set up an auto-responder - a stitch in time saves nine.)
It's engaged journalism at it's most basic, but it's free, easy to do, and you'll see an immediate impact. Without exception, every news organization I've spoken with that did this was pleasantly surprised by the quality and relevance of reader submissions.
3. Have an open editorial meeting.
Let's say your newsroom is planning some coverage of a particular topic area. Maybe Education Week is coming up, or Black History Month, or there's just a pressing local issue and you want to do a series of stories on a theme.
Rather than lock yourselves away in your news office, why not invite the general public and grab a few tables at a local restaurant, bar, church hall or park? Use your email and/or social media feeds to invite folks, post it on your website and in your paper, stick up some flyers.
Cast the net as far and wide as you can. Remember, what you're after is divergent perspectives and backgrounds. No point having a bunch of people in the room with the same ideas and experiences that you have.
Once you've got your crowd, invite them to contribute their questions, ideas and suggestions for reporting angles.
I can guarantee you that busting open your brainstorm in this way will gift you story leads, characters, conflicts and opportunities for fresh reporting that you will not be able to unlock by yourself.
4. Go sit somewhere else.
At my first newspaper job, a small country town Australia, the newspaper's office was in the middle of the main street, wedged between the bank and the pub. The door was always open. News and information flowed in and out all day, like foot traffic, like daily life. We heard everything, and everyone knew where to find us.
On the flip side, I worked for a chain of papers in the Pacific Northwest that thought the best place for a local newspaper office was in a business park on the outskirts of town where nobody ever went. Later, their business model "evolved" to moving the office to the next city over so they could share office space and save money. And ponder why it was so hard to become an integral part of the community in which they weren't.
Many hardworking reporters might find themselves in similar situations. A few that I have spoken with have solved that problem by setting up their own "office" somewhere else.
Pick a day or two a week and plonk yourself down in your local cafe, restaurant or library, and work from there. Any place with wi-fi oughta do.
A reporter I spoke with posts on social media where she's going to be the next day. "You can find me at Billy's Cafe. I'm working on a story about [whatever subject], so if you've got any useful insights, come and hang out."
It's also a great way to begin to improve your coverage of neighborhoods or regions you don't know much about. Pick a place you've never been before. Just sit there for a day, make your calls and do your work. You'll be amazed what you learn, and about the people that come your way.
5. Let someone take over your Instagram feed.
Instagram takeover. Genius. Shoe companies have been doing them for years. They have the potential to be hugely effective in expanding your newsroom's audience, too.
(Okay, maybe you don't have an Instagram feed. Many papers don't. But if you don't, here's a great way to start one.)
It's a simple concept. Pick an active person or organization in your community and let them manage your Instagram feed for a week. Be strategic about how the person or group you pick might connect to your reporting themes.
For example, if education is a focus of your reporting, have a high school student or class takeover your Instagram feed with photos about daily life for young people in your town.
How about a police officer, or someone from the parks and recreation department? Or someone involved with the annual homeless count? Or a mail delivery person? What would they see in the goings-on of their daily life in your community that would interest your audience?
The possibilities are endless. You can keep an eye on the feed to make sure nothing offensive gets posted, but apart from that it costs you nothing but a little imagination.
And, at the end of the day you've created a whole bunch of visual content that is always handy to have.
6. Find yourself a big wall.
I don't know about you, but most of the towns I've lived in have had an abundance of one dubious asset - abandoned buildings. Abandoned buildings mean large, blank walls. Those blank walls, artfully repurposed, can become flashpoints of community discussion.
Find a wall you can use, or a large shopfront window, or a blackboard in a willing local cafe - any public space will do - and ask your community a question.
What's the one thing you want the world to know about Jonesville?
Have you ever thought about leaving Smithtown? Why, and what stopped you?
What's the most important issue to you in the upcoming council elections?
Invite them to write or sticky-note their responses on the wall.
Sure, you'll probably get some wise guys. But I'll bet you'll learn something about your community, and in one fell swoop you've made a whole bunch of people understand that your paper wants them to be an active part of key local conversations. (And you'll have done another savvy piece of PR.)
Exploring pivot from Dad/Budget Costume Designer to Dad/Outsider Artist.
Justin Auciello must wonder how his life became so entwined with the movement of terrible winds.
When Hurricane Irene blew chaos and destruction into the lives of millions of people in the Caribbean and the along the East Coast of the United States, it also brought with it the spark of an idea that would change the course of Auciello’s life and career.
The ripples of that wind, and that idea, may spread further yet.
From his home in South Seaside Park, New Jersey, Auciello, an urban planner by trade, recognized that in a time of crisis and confusion, access to timely and reliable information was critical to a community’s ability to cope and respond.
Underwhelmed by existing traditional efforts to provide that information to locals during Hurricane Irene, Auciello took to Facebook and began posting and sharing whatever verifiable information he could find on the storm. He called the Facebook page Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
Within hours of Hurricane Irene hitting the Jersey Shore on August 28, 2011 it had 500 likes. By the end of the storm, 27,000.
When Hurricane Sandy ripped through the coast 15 months later, Jersey Shore Hurricane News became one of the key pieces of the region’s emergency communications infrastructure, gathering a network of engaged locals and intrepid citizens in a free and accessible information distribution service that no legacy media or municipal organization could match. Facebook was it’s only outlet.
Today, 240,000 people follow Jersey Shore Hurricane News, which has evolved into covering other locals news of interest, including traffic and weather, guided by the tagline: “News you can use.”
Auciello was lauded far and wide for his ingenuity in reimagining what a local news distribution network could look like in a time when the models that have served American communities for decades have abandoned their own evolutionary drive.
And he became an inspiration for those of us, like me, exploring what creative solutions we can bring to help local people avoid the disempowerment and alienation that usually happens when local news providers fail and information deserts begin to spread like toxic patches.
Like a war correspondent with a knack, or curse, for happening upon a small town a day before the tanks roll in, Auciello must by now becoming a storm-chaser’s totem.
And so it was that he found himself in Puerto Rico last year (his wife is Puerto Rican), caught up in the tragedy and tumult cause by Hurricane’s Irma and Maria.
With the island in ruins and basic infrastructure and communications systems nonexistent or in disarray, Auciello was in many ways exactly where he needed to be.
Could the simple but effective system behind Jersey Shore Hurricane News be put in place there to help the people of Puerto Rico share vital news and information about emergency, relief and redevelopment efforts?
Today, about three months since Hurricane Maria abated, Auciello is training and coordinating 12 local news and information contributors in various communities across the island, and publishing their reports to a central Facebook page: Information As Aid - Puerto Rico.
“Right after the storm there was very little flow of information,” he says. Already understaffed local news outlets were not able to respond to the massive information need.
“Local media in Puerto Rico is struggling big time. For the most part, immediately after the storm radio stations here was only able to report what people were coming in to the station to tell them directly, basically what was happening in the immediate neighborhood. Often they were just repeating the same stuff over and over again.”
The Information As Aid project is filling a critical gap in information infrastructure at a time when local media outlets are struggling, and fierce competition for revenue is discouraging outlets from collaboration and content sharing. (Information As Aid is led by NetHope; and Auciello has been seconded from InterNews to lead the project.)
It’s also an experiment into whether community contributors, with little or no journalism training, can sustain a reliable and informative news site beyond the frame of emergency response.
When I spoke with Auciello this week, he was preparing for the second in-person training with the 12 contributors, each of whom is paid by Nethope. They were chosen because they were active citizens in their community.
To help administer the program and find the kinds of people NetHope was seeking, NetHope hired Glenisse Pagan, who operates a local nonprofit and has an existing network of relationships across the island.
“When I first met the contributors I said, I know you’re not reporters, but you’re here for a reason,” Justin recalled. “You’re here because you care deeply about your community.”
Each contributor covers about four municipalities. Puerto Rico shares some of the geographical and technological challenges that foster similar issues of isolation in rural Appalachia, with long distances between communities, and a mountain range running through the island.
In the wake of the storms, 99.8 percent of residents lost cell service, though that is returning. NetHope is one of a number of organizations expanding wi-fi access through the use of VSATs and other temporary solutions.
To help the community contributors gather accurate and pertinent information, and function like trained reporters, Auciello created a series of question templates to guide them through interview situations, with unique question sets for talking with locals, municipality reps, local NGOs, international NGOs, and first responders.
“We encourage them to start by going after the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “Talk to the local NGOs you are already familiar with. Talk to the Mayor. Write down whatever basic information they give you, and go from there.”
The contributors get their content to Auciello by posting to a private Facebook group, which is the team’s primary means of communication.
To provide proof of information sources, Auciello encourages the contributors to include a photo or short video of the people they interview.
He knows that Information As Aid, like Jersey Shore Hurricane News, will thrive or die based on the quality and accuracy of the information it shares. Rigorous fact-checking and adhering to journalistic standards is one of Auciello’s core tenets.
“I say to the contributors, ‘even though you’re not journalists, you need to conduct yourselves as journalists,’” he says. “Veracity is really important.”
Sometimes the content is just lists - basic bullet-point facts of needs, times, dates or places. But Auciello encourages the contributors to be more creative in painting a picture of life in their community.
“Go down to the panadería, go hang out in the plaza and listen to people,” he tells them. “Take some photos of whatever is happening in the street.”
As the Facebook page admin and content curator, Auciello spends a lot of time verifying information before he posts, calling people, following up with email contacts.
This seems to be where the game will be won or lost - whether one guy is able to ensure the journalistic quality of content produced by a loose collection of citizen reporters. The integrity of that content will become increasingly important as the reputation of this local reporting initiative grows, and national and international media organizations ask to republish news it originates.
For the moment, these kinds of vertical broadcasting partnerships are not a focus, but Auciello does hope that local reporters will use the Information As Aid facebook page as a resource to help their own coverage, and thus further boost the spread of vital information to locals that need it.
Information As Aid - as the name suggests - was focused initially on the logistical utility of basic emergency communications, which in the case of Puerto Rico’s recovery looked like the location of recovery centers, their hours and needs, where donations of food, water and clothes are most needed, and what sites have electricity and wi-fi.
But Auciello sees this moment as an opportunity for the project to transition, or evolve, into deeper storytelling, exploring the broader and more complex narrative of the people and places of Puerto Rico. He followed a similar path with Jersey Shore Hurricane News, once the immediate response need had abated.
“After Sandy, I was trying to focus not just on the news of the day, but also tell stories of hope, or inspiration, of overcoming adversity,” Auciello says. “I wanted to tell stories of people making improvements.”
This type of content will be much harder for untrained journalists to produce, and so Auciello envisions a new phase of expanding the network of contributors, more training and support resources, and more direct involvement in communities to build the beginnings of a new communications infrastructure that might last.
To give contributors another template to follow to produce more narrative-style story content, he’s working with Jesse Hardman at Internews on the idea of asking each contributor to pick a person in their community, and write a short piece once a week about how that person is doing, at that time.
The thought is that, over the period of a few months, the combined entries will provide an illuminating insight into the day-to-day life and concerns of Puerto Rican people.
In Puerto Rico, telenovelas - soap operas - are hugely popular. Auciello says that’s because of the inherent connection that people have to the ancient tradition of storytelling.
“The hard facts are super important, but let’s tell a story,” he says. “People want to relate. People want to know about other people, how they are living.”
Auciello’s hopes for the expansion of the project is, of course, dependent on the continued funding support of organizations like NetHope and InterNews.
For me, his example has compelled me to envision similar community contributor networks in underserved regions of Appalachia, places where the sense of isolation and abandonment are just as strong.
Here, the human catastrophe unfolds more slowly, but the erosion is no less devastating.
Unrevealed truths smolder. Inevitably, they force themselves to the surface. Consider Ferguson. A molten core of racial tension can’t be suppressed forever.
In an ideal world, journalism would have helped reveal the underlying faultlines in Ferguson before they had split wide open...
Three years ago I moved to New Orleans because of a question. I was sitting having a beer with a local news director who had just been tasked with creating a new news department, but didn’t have funding for any staff. “How do you cover a city without any reporters?” she asked. It was an interesting question to say the least, so I moved south from New York to find out what the answer might be.